The Artist

Léopold Survage

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(or Sturzwage)
Born 31 July or 12 August 1879, in Moscow. Died 1 November 1968, in Paris.
20th century. French.
Active in France from 1908, naturalised French 1927.

Painter (including gouache), watercolorist, engraver, illustrator. Figures, urban landscapes. Decorative panels.
Groups: Golubaya Roza (Blue Rose), Bubnovy Valet (Jack of Diamonds), Section d'Or.


Biography :


Léopold Survage's father was called Sturzwage and was of Finnish origin. His mother was Danish. His father was a piano maker but regretted the fact that he had never been able to become a painter.

As a child Léopold learned the trade of cabinet maker and dreamt of becoming an architect, but after discovering the works of Gauguin and Cézanne in the collections of Russian collectors Sergei Shukin and Ivan Abramovich Morosov he decided to become an artist.

At the school of fine arts in Moscow he met Larionov, Robert Falk, Soudékine, Archipenko and Pevsner and together they formed the Golubaya Roza (Blue Rose) group.

They all wanted to go to Paris. Léopold arrived there in 1908 and studied under Matisse for two months. From then on he only left Paris for brief visits to Italy and Catalonia. In 1919 he founded the Section d'Or with Gleizes and Archipenko. In 1921, after marrying the pianist Germaine Meyer, he began to associate with the musicians of the Groupe des Six and with Eric Satie.

The same year he published Essai sur la Synthèse Plastique de l'Espace et son Rôle dans la Peinture (Essay on the Représentation of Space and its Rôle in Painting) in the magazine Action.

Survage, in the Platonist tradition, believed in the revelatory power of art. For him the artist was a visionary whose mission it is to interpret the deep reality of things through decipherable symbols.

He played an active part in Cubism, although for him this developed more towards a rhythmic Symbolism particular to him.

He was interested in the physics and chemistry of colour and rediscovered the process which preserves the freshness of the rare, ancient paintings that have survived and with which he achieved unrivalled transparency. In 1912 he began work on his film project Rythmes Colorés, for which he executed 200 abstract compositions.

These place him historically among the creators of abstraction, alongside Delaunay, Kupka, Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian.

Because of the war, this film was never made, but the project is considered an important event in the conception of colour cinema and abstract kinetics. In 1914 Apollinaire devoted a laudatory article to it and in 1919 Cendrars made a poetic transcription of it.

Survage practised what he called a 'plastic synthesis of space', painting town, portraits, mainly in the south of France during the war years. Apollinaire wrote, 'Nobody before him had known how to put an entire town and the interiors of its houses on a single canvas.'

He went on to produce 'plastic metaphors', combining several images relating to the same idea, for example the silhouette of a peasant inscribed on a fig leaf.

In 1922 Diaghilev commissioned him to produce sets and costumes for the ballet Mavra by Stravinsky.

In 1937 he painted three panels for the railways pavilion at the international exhibition in Paris: Liaisons Postales et Télécommunications, L'Optique-Horlogerie, La Précision Mécanique (Postal and Telecommunications Connections, Clockwork Optics and Mechanical Precision), each 65 feet (20 metres) long, for which he was awarded a gold medal.

The Horse of 1910 is a fine ornamental piece filled with a spiritual quality. Some of the Rythmes Colorés of 1912 reveal his particular contribution to Cubism.

Factories of 1914 are the juxtaposition and linking of different viewpoints, inviting the unravelling of a thought process.

The same is true of Ville-franche-sur-Mer of 1915 - or, the same year, Cat and Peasant - in which the symbolic elements are superimposed rather than following on from one another. Nice of 1916 and his landscapes up to 1921 reveal the same preoccupations.

After this, Survage began depicting man, though without abandoning the Constructivist principles that he had established for his own use.

These works include: Fishermen of 1925; The Escaped Bull of 1927; other Fishermen paintings from 1930 to 1936; Encounter of 1937; The Fall of Icarus - a vast composition in which, during the German occupation of France, he gave a symbolic representation of his spiritual beliefs alongside his general artistic and technical accomplishment; Discord of 1943 which shows clear evidence of his cosmic speculations; Charity, also 1943; Man of 1950 - a composition measuring 13 x 6 feet 6 in (4 x 2 metres); and The Builders of 1952.

In 1917, Apollinaire wrote in a calligramme composed as a preface to Survage's first solo exhibition: 'This painter is the offspring of this calm, dense war. His work is a shimmering bridge between what art was before the war and the magnificent blossoming of the new painters. An admirer of Goethe and a spiritualist, he reads the works of the theosophist Rudolph Steiner.

While continuing to apply his principles on rhythm and the translation of space he increasingly gives a symbolic content to his paintings. He illustrated the works of our poet friends Éluard, Cocteau. Pierre-Albert Birot and Franz Hellens.

Despite his historic position alongside the creators of the principal artistic movements of the first naïf of the century, his natural discretion prevents him from enjoying greater notoriety.

Survage was awarded a gold medal at the Milan Triennalle of 1928 and at the Exposition Internationale in Paris in 1937 and in 1960 received the Guggenheim Prize.

He began exhibiting with the Golubaya Roza (Blue Rose) group in Moscow prior to 1908, using any space that would accommodate their work.

He went on to exhibit regularly at group of exhibitions in Paris; in 1911 at the Salon des Indépendants, in the Cubist room; in 1914 three 'phases' of his film Rythmes Colorés at the Salon des Indépendants; from 1919 to 1925 at the Salon de la Section d'Or; and in 1928 the Exhibition of Contemporary French Painting in Moscow.

Posthumous exhibitions include:


- 1971, the Riverside Art Gallery at University of California;

- 1977, Paris New York at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin and the Centre Culturel du Marais, Paris;

- 1979, Paris-Moscou; (Paris-Moscow) at the Pompidou Centre, Paris and he Musée d'Art et d'Industrie, St-Étienne;

- 1981 at the Pushkin Museum, Moscow; in 1986, Futurismo & Fufurismi at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice; in 1987 at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris;

- 1992 at the Fondation Maeght, St-Paul-de-Vence;

- 2003, Aux Origines de l'Abstraction (1800-1914) (The Origins of Abstraction, 1800-1914) at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

He also showed his work in solo exhibitions in Paris: in 1917 a first event organised by Apollinaire who provided a preface in the form of a calligramme; in 1920, 1921 and 1922 at events organised by Léonce Rosenberg; in 1966 at the Musée Calllera, and in the late 1920s in Chicago and New York.

After his death, a retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon. It then toured France.

Other exhibitions include:, in 1966, the Musée Galliera, Paris; in 1970 the Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels; in 1973 the Musée d'Art et d'Industrie. St-Etienne and the Musée de l'Abbaye Ste-Croix, Sables-d'Olonne; in 1975 the Musée Cheret, Nice; in 1989 and 1992 the Galerie La Pochade, Paris; and in 2001 Les Lumières de Léopold Survage: œuvres 1970-1932 (Illumination from Léopold Survage, Works 1910-1932), at Espace 13, Galerie d'Art du Conseil Général, Aix-en-Provence.


(Source: Benezit)

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